Andy Barker, P.I. ran
for six episodes on NBC in 2007. It was a mid-season replacement
and part of their blockbuster Thursday night lineup for four weeks,
with the final two episodes being dumped on a Saturday night.
NBC took a chance putting an odd new show on its Thursday schedule,
especially one starring the always-cancelled Andy Richter (Andy Richter
Controls the Universe, and Quintuplets). It's as
if the show was forced to run across a mine field already strewn with
Andy Barker (Richter) is a
young CPA opening his own business in a Los Angeles-area strip mall.
Sharing the complex is a video store managed by Simon (Tony Hale) and
an Afghani kebab stand owned by Wally (Marshall Manesh). Unbeknownst
to Barker, his office was once occupied by private investigator Lew
Staziak (Harve Presnell). Confusion over the prior tenant
brings Barker clients who want husbands found and deaths investigated. Barker reluctantly
opens a parallel P.I. operation to supplement his slow-growing
accounting business. With his wife Jenny (Clea Lewis) supporting
him, and the assistance of Simon, Wally, and Lew, each episode follows
Barker on a new set of misadventures.
Across its six short episodes,
Andy Barker, P.I. manages to develop a unique comic tone,
blending the gentle milquetoasty humor of Richter's character with
the oddball antics of his associates, all amid the visual trappings
of hard-boiled detective films. Adding an unusual angle to that
atmosphere is the grizzled, hilarious performance of Harve Presnell,
whose breathless strings of 40s-era insults and wiseguy jargon are easily the show's funniest bits.
Like a lot of shows - comedy
or otherwise - the first few episodes feel choppy, unpolished, and
unsure of themselves. But unlike most shows, a sense of self-assurance
is well-established after just the first three episodes. It's
remarkable - especially in light of the show's tragic fate - that a distinctive tone and engaging character dynamics
were developed over such a short length of time. Simon is a wimpy fanboy poseur
(portrayed with a heaping dose of Hale's Buster from Arrested Development).
Wally is a quick-tempered self-promoter. Lew is a half-insane
old man, always ready to hurl insults at anyone within earshot.
Jenny, Barker's wife, is played with a sense of affectionately dippy
frivolity - Lewis's specialty. This motley crew of diverse
characters quickly become familiar faces whose dynamics are
the driving force of the show. It's a rare comedy that achieves
that character-driven core, rather than depending upon outlandish plot
devices, physical humor, and over-the-top gags.
The writers on the show deserve
special mention. Led by co-creators Conan O'Brien and Jonathan
Groff, the writing staff carefully constructed a world that depends
upon a special balance of tone and character. The infusion of
noir elements could have been handled as parody, but instead is played more or less straight, with character dynamics remaining
the main source of comedy. Andy's devotion to accounting, for
example, and his attitude of distaste for the criminal element lead
to some very funny lines throughout the series.
The show features some top
guest stars - in the final episode, "The Lady Varnishes," the
cast is joined by both Amy Sedaris and Ed Asner, both of whom contribute
excellent, colorful performances. Production values are high,
and the show's visuals are well-composed. It really is a shame
that this ramshackle comedy team was unable to work together longer.
The death of Presnell in June makes the show's short run even sadder.
But we can be grateful that Shout! Factory has released the six episodes
that were produced.
On Disc 1, we also have
Writers 101 (30:18), which is actually a very interesting an in-depth
piece about how the television writing process worked on the show.
On Disc 2, there is a behind-the-scenes featurette called Going Where
the Numbers Take You (32:45), which summarizes the show's history.
Also included is a short gag reel (4:11).
These six episodes comprise the remnants of what could have been a great television comedy; the elements were all there, but it was doomed from the outset by its ambitious placement on NBC's killer Thursday schedule. Cheers to Shout! Factory for the excellent technical presentation and solid bonus content. Highly recommended.